The Inevitable Lies of Unorthodox

Shaul Magid on Netflix’s Unorthodox

A Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva Dean) in Jerusalem once said to me, “One of the biggest problems with the yeshiva world is that it thinks it’s a world.” I thought of this remark as I watched the Netflix series Unorthodox, based on a book by Deborah Feldman about her personal journey out of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. One of the distinguishing features of ultra-Orthodox “worlds” is that they function, or envision themselves, as self-enclosed spaces socially and ideologically, even when they exist in urban areas. Their entire social system, from law and custom, to dress, to language, food etc. is meant to sustain separation, not only from the non-Jewish world but from other Jews as well. Their lives are categorically different, for example, than Modern Orthodox Jews who live fully absorbed in the larger world in which they live. The ultra-Orthodox community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the home of the protagonist Esty Shapiro, is one such enclavist community, born from, and driven by, fear of the outside. It exists “as if” it is a world unto itself. As if it is a “world.” Unorthodox shows us the extent to which this is both true and false, and the price that world, or any such world, pays in order to sustain that myth.

Unorthodox appears at a strangely opportune time. The world, or some part of it, seems increasingly curious about Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. The celebrated series Shtisl, a masterful study of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, has gone viral. Ultra-Orthodox communities that refrained from social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic continue to make international news. The exotic nature of a community that is uncanny, both familiar and utterly strange, has become a curiosity for Jews and non-Jews alike.

The series, of course, is not about ultra-Orthodoxy per se but a personal tale – whose exhilarating and tragic story-line is now somewhat weathered – of a person who flees ultra-Orthodoxy suddenly and without notice to “find herself” in what her community views simply as “evil culture” (tarbut ra). As opposed to Shtisl, a series that focuses on the tribulations and complexity of living inside that world, Unorthodox is focused on finding an exit.

There has been much written critically about the ways that this ultra-Orthodoxy is portrayed in the series. Having lived for some years in those communities, albeit in adjacent Boro Park and not Williamsburg, I think such a critique is unwarranted. Unorthodox is not a documentary but a fictional story inspired by a true one, the construction of a world through the lens of one brave and tragic young woman. The one dimensionality of Williamsburg, its cookie-cutter characters and almost comical sense of its own importance, or the utopian vision of contemporary Berlin where everyone seems to love everyone without borders, are not meant to be accurate; they are archetypes facing off against one another in the trauma of separation and the promise of freedom. Each is portrayed as the polar opposite of the other, from the color scheme to the cinematography, from the aesthetic of ultra-Orthodox foreboding to the carefree culture in Berlin. These fictive backdrops exist in the mind of our protagonist, each with its own magnetism.

Esty’s one-dimensional Williamsburg shows its strengths and its weaknesses. Even as she prepares to leave with no prospect of return, she holds part of that world close to her heart; she defends it even as she castigates it; she smiles when Yael knows what kugel is, “Jewish food,” she says. This is part of Esty’s dilemma: Williamsburg is a constructed “world” that cares deeply for her as it slowly suffocates her. A world where she is both embraced and effaced. That world can never quite tolerate her difference, inherited from her mother, and also never admit the deep fallacy that constructs such difference. It cannot face its own failure to intervene and save Esty’s mother from her errant and drunken father. That world, under perennial siege, will always choose social cohesion, even at the expense of its members. Secrecy overrides truth. Survival necessarily has its casualties.

And here, I think, we come to the most interesting and precarious part of the series that filters through almost every relationship. It is perhaps Unorthodox’s most salient contribution. Ultra-Orthodox is a “world” that is full of secrets that always threaten to unravel its coherence and yet also drive its ability to sustain itself against all odds. It is a world that knows it is always on the brink of infiltration, or defilement, and thus its own sanctity is inevitably riddled with fragments of false consciousness to keep itself afloat. There is no purity in the darkness of trauma. Esty seems to experience this during the seder when her family sings, “In every generation they arise up to destroy us, and God will save us.” She runs to the bathroom to discover she is pregnant, knowing that she is now not only a member but a participant in such a world. At the moment her good fortune promises to erase her marginal status, in some way she realizes she must leave.

Secrets of deviance are all over the series; the secret of saving her father from shame by banishing her mother; Moishe’s secret of living a double life; her grandmother’s secret of loving classical music and also hiding the fact that she received a call from the runaway Esty, as if it were a dream. Esty’s mother’s secret of having Esty taken away from her instead of the community’s falsehood that she abandoned her. Yanky’s secret of sleeping with a prostitute; and Esty’s secret about her pregnancy. In an enclave, yet living in close proximity to a culture it labels simply as “evil,” secrets are inevitable, because deviance is inevitable, because human beings, unlike Temple sacrifices, are not pure. What matters in such a world is not that people never stray; what matters is that when they return they leave their stories behind. That world needs the lie to survive.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is the way the ultra-Orthodox community depicted here constructs itself as if it were sui generis. When Esty blurts out in the car that she lost half her family in the concentration camps, the Israeli woman Yael turns to her and says, “Most families in Israel lost half their families in the camps, but we must move on.” Esty looks shocked because she recognizes in Yael’s comment that the Nazis did not only kill “real” Jews, but any Jews. The trauma of the Holocaust runs so deep in the ultra-Orthodox world even, or precisely, because it is not spoken about. That all kinds of Jews were murdered is, and must remain, a secret, because if it doesn’t, what essentially separates Esty from Yael? And when one of her Berlin friends notes that he too was raised by his grandparents like Esty, she realizes that others share experiences she thought were all her own, that people are all products of complex situations, prejudices, and challenges. Esty learns in Berlin that she does not carry trauma alone, and sees how others move beyond their personal traumas without holding onto the false secret of uniqueness. The secret of the ultra-Orthodox “world” is that it hides from its young that they are not really that different from anyone else. It is precisely holding onto the lie of that categorical difference that prevents that world from being swallowed up by that which always threatens it: the outside. Esty longs to be swallowed up, she longs to free herself from the lie that is killing her, the secret that will be the altar upon which her newborn will be sacrificed.

It is this tension of truth and lies that stands at the center of the series, a face-off between Esty and Moishe. Moishe is enraged by his own weakness, which most painfully includes his inability to free himself from a world he no longer believes in. He embodies the very notion of “evil culture” while loathing it; hidden under Hasidic garb, he makes his final appearance as a stumbling drunk celebrating his luck at the casino. Moishe is trapped in a community that intentionally does not prepare him for the outside. And yet he does not have the wherewithal to succeed inside. Like so many others who want to leave, he ends up using the outside to fulfill desires that remain forbidden on the inside. But he also knows that only the world where he came from will care for him. That is the point of his soliloquy to Esty at the playground: “You think you can survive out here, but you cannot.” He is only talking to himself. Esty knows that. Moishe is stuck between his need for acceptance and his self-loathing.

Moishe’s rage toward Esty and her mother is that they have done what he could not; fully enter into a world that is not “evil” but simply another iteration of human collective existence. Or perhaps more accurately, he could never quite recognize that there is evil in both worlds. He has to prove to himself that the outside is only evil by feeding on the underbelly of society. Moishe’s secret is not only that he hides himself in his black attire under a Yankees cap but that he is tortured by his own weakness and faithlessness. And of course, the rabbi knows that, which is why he chooses Moishe to take the trip. He knows that Moishe is a defiled being; but the rabbi will now use the profane to benefit the holy. Moishe knows better; he has been out there, the outside is inside him, eating him alive, he knows there is little chance of bringing her back. But Moishe will have some fun along the way and try to make Esty feel as miserable as he does before he leaves her behind. Unlike Moishe, Esty is already free in part because she is already banished; not because of her resolve, but because their world already closed the door behind her. In truth, they only really want her baby. Moishe says as much when he stumbles into the hotel, “We’ll be back for the baby.” Communal survival is everything. 

Unorthodox is a very good illustration of the fantasy of that so-called “world” as it buttresses another world entirely. But the more it steps outside, the more the fantasy collapses. The sense of power that drives the male elite dissipates once one ventures outside Williamsburg. Moishe acts like a denuded superhero, as Esty’s mother says to him: “This is not your world, you have no power here,” which, of course, he knows is true. The powerlessness of ultra-Orthodoxy comes into full view the more the two hapless Hasidim stroll the streets of Berlin on a mission they know they cannot win because it is not on their turf. Berlin, of all places. Esty’s mother loses her because she did not move far enough away. But she gives her daughter the necessary papers to emigrate to Germany in their last meeting: “In case you should need this,” she says—the irony being that a Jew’s safe haven is the very place that tried to eradicate the Jews seventy years before.

Berlin is clearly more Esty’s fantasy than a real place. Its colorful landscape, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural façade, its friendliness and beauty are all the opposite of the dank and drab greyness that is, in her mind, Williamsburg. Or the diabolical Berlin of the 1940s. Can this really be the city that killed her family? Is her Arab Yemenite friend related to those who try to kill Jews on Israeli buses? Every moment in Berlin is iconoclastic, erasing her world, and its need for secrets.

She cannot seem to have sex, which makes her dispensable in the Hasidic community where she lives but is irrelevant to her new cadre of friends. In Esty’s Berlin there is no talk of children, only of art. Esty suffers the humiliation of double marginalization, an orphan and sexually frigid. She acknowledges her first marginalization early on when she says to Yanky: “I am different,” to which he replies, “Different is good.” But Yanky knows that is not true, not in their world, and she does too. Difference is not good. Different is dangerous, difference is forbidden. Who are different? The “goyim” are different. What matters most is to keep the communal organism alive, and that requires two things: fidelity above all else to the community and children. She has neither and thus by the time she leaves, she is already gone.

Unorthodox does not have the complexity or character development of Shtisl or other like-minded productions. Its story is well-worn. But Unorthodox does tell us something about enclaves and about communities that think they are worlds. A community, like Williamsburg, that prides itself on truth (“God’s seal is truth,” says scripture) must be laced through with lies, almost by definition, and of necessity. Such demands of conformity require the lie to survive.

While Unorthodox offers a largely negative portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, one can easily come away with a somewhat sympathetic view as well. Williamsburg or, as Esty puts it, “the community where I come from,” is a “world” whose beliefs and values conflict with the world around them. They are thus in a state of perpetual siege and carry the fear of two millennia of persecution with few tools to move beyond it. In many ways, it is the persecution that enables it to continue. And thus such a world becomes inevitably enmeshed in a web of secrets.

And yet Esty is able to show Berlin the beauty of “her community” through her heartfelt rendition of a Hasidic wedding song at her audition. When she sings the Hasidic wedding niggun without preparation, it outshines Schubert’s “An die Musik,” her first song in the audition. It outshines Berlin, and it illumines the darkness of all the secrets and lies of her life. In that moment she discovers and communicates the beauty of her world in all its raw tragedy and desperate hope. But for her to bring forth that beauty, for her to experience it truly, she has to leave it because “it is not proper for a woman to sing in front of men.” The voice of a woman, like so much else, must be kept secret.

Esty Shapiro leapt off the precipice. Or was she pushed? Either way, Unorthodox shines in the dark, and shows the luminal darkness that flashes through the light. As my Rosh Yeshiva says, “It thinks it’s a world.” But without that fantasy, it has little chance of survival.

Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine. His forthcoming book is Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical with Princeton University Press.